Are you team vampire or team zombie? It's easy to see why vampires have a pop-culture edge. They clean up better for photo shoots. They embody sex all that sharing of fluids not decay. They are refined, orderly, even courtly. Zombies tend to be poor conversationalists.
But when it comes to bringing actual horror, it's no contest. A vampire will nibble your neck, but zombies will take down your entire civilization. (Ever pragmatic, bloodsuckers prefer to keep their food supply sustainable.) The zombie apocalypse is the premise and setting of AMC's new series The Walking Dead (Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.; premieres Halloween night). And judging by the first two episodes of its six-episode debut season, the scariest part of the series is not what the animated corpses do but what the surviving humans are driven to do.
Adapted from graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, with author-sanctioned liberties, and produced by Frank Darabont (director of The Shawshank Redemption), Walking Dead centers on Southern sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who has the good fortune to be shot nearly fatally before a viral outbreak that turns most of humanity into ambulatory meat.
Rick awakens from a coma (à la 28 Days Later) in an abandoned hospital. He staggers out into the depopulated world, searching for the wife and son he hopes are still alive, and learns about the outbreak bit by bit. Survivors are rumored to have massed under military protection in Atlanta. The virus, transmitted by zombie bites and scratches, kills you and then wakes you up; the flesh-eating revenants can't speak and are physically and mentally slow, though they retain vague memories of their lives. (They can be killed only by shots to the head, because you don't mess with tradition.)
A Zombie Story with Heart
The 90-minute pilot, directed by dara-bont, paints a thoroughly convincing postapocalyptic world, both visually and emotionally. Yes, it delivers astonishing scenes of devastation, but its more affecting and more horrifying concerns are human.
How do you hold on to your morals, your laws, your faith, when no one is around to compel you to? Does the calamity drive the few remaining humans to band together or revert to barbarism? And how does it feel when the "walkers" on your street whom you must put down or be killed yourself are your friends and family? A subplot in the pilot, in which Rick befriends a widower and son holed up in their house alone, recalls Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel The Road.
AMC's series (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Rubicon) are gorgeously shot for basic cable, and Walking Dead, rotting flesh and all, is no exception. Darabont opens the pilot with a scene a flash-forward to Rick after his awakening in the hospital that establishes the show's world by gradually offering information in a slow pullback. First we see an empty road. Then a car moving, from which Rick emerges with a gasoline can. Then an overturned car. An overturned truck. A traffic light with no power. And then an entire roadway of burned vehicles, lined with abandoned encampments littered with children's toys.
In the second episode, Rick (played with flinty stoicism and a credible accent by the British Lincoln) heads into the world in search of his family. The series adds several more characters turns out it is not always the nicest folks who survive an undead uprising and ups the encounters with zombie mobs considerably. It doesn't skimp on the gore, but the pilot is actually more bloodcurdling for showing fewer undead. (After decades of creep-show movies, not to mention the "Thriller" video, it's hard for a shambling, moaning zombie army to entirely avoid kitsch.)
The more intriguing aspect of the series is the survivors and whether they can maintain a society worth surviving in. Which makes zombies an ideal metaphor, as Godzilla was in the nuclear age, for our nightmares du jour: pandemics; decentralized terrorism; the collapse of social, financial and ecological systems. Zombies are viruses, really leaderless networks, organized on no other principle than destruction, multiplying exponentially until they burn themselves out, taking us with them. If The Walking Dead can build on its promise and run with these ideas, along with unflinching gross-out thrills, it can tell a doomsday story with all the things zombies crave: brains, guts and heart.
This article originally appeared in the November 8, 2010 issue of TIME.